August 21, 2009

US Army Begins Training To Reduce Depression

The US Army is planning mandatory trainings to help soldiers become more emotionally "resilient."

Rising rates of suicide and depression among soldiers has led Army commanders to launch the unprecedented initiative to help troops better handle stress.

Beginning October 1, active-duty reserve and National Guard soldiers will be required to take a test that will access their spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.

The "resiliency" test features questions like "How often do you feel that you lack friendship?" and "How often do you feel left out?"

The effort is designed to help soldiers overcome hardships and grow stronger through the process.

All answers in the test will remain confidential, said Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, who is overseeing the program.

"It is not intended to be a screening tool for anything," she told AFP.

The soldiers will be allowed to choose a resiliency training course based on their test scores.

"It was developed because we recognized that we really did not have a good preventive and strengthening model for psychological health," said Cornum.

"It's just a recognition that we spend an enormous amount of energy and resources on people after they've had some negative outcome, but we're not doing anything deliberately as a preventive measure," she said.

The program is a response to suicides and signs of distress among soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our younger people are having more trouble than anybody else," Cornum said.

The number of suicides among soldiers has risen from 115 in 2007, to 128 soldiers last year.

During the first half of 2008, 88 soldiers committed suicide, signaling a possible increase for the third straight year.

The resiliency testing is based on 20 years of research by Martin Seligman, head of the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Seligman's methods have consistently reduced levels of depression in children and young adults.

According to Seligman, the training focuses on adopting positive attitudes and checking negative thoughts, but is grounded in scientific research.

A group of 50 soldiers have already been through the program, and another 150 will soon start, said Cornum.

Nearly 4,000 soldiers have already been tested and had an average score of 3.7, with 5 being the highest score to indicate emotional resilience.

The program initially began when Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen sent a colonel to seek advice from Seligman about how to help soldiers returning from combat.

According to Seligman, Mullen was concerned with the emotional well-being of returning soldiers and "didn't want his legacy to be people begging on the streets of Washington."

Seligman told the colonel that it was possible to teach soldiers how to properly respond to distress, and help them emerge emotionally stronger.

"The response to combat and high adversity generally is there is an extreme end which we call post-traumatic stress disorder, and the great middle is resilience and the high end is post-traumatic growth," Seligman told AFP.

According to Seligman, who has volunteered his time for the project free of charge, many of the combat veterans and drill sergeants have been uniformly enthusiastic about taking the resiliency course.


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